The long-awaited Russian crackdown against Islamic militants in the North Caucasus has begun. For now the emerging law enforcement and military campaign seems more sporadic in its nature than first mooted. President Vladimir Putin, promising to get tough with “terrorists” following the Beslan hostage crisis in September 2004, has recently invoked this tougher stance in the guise of special operations against small groups of militants in Chechnya and in Nalchik, Kabardino-Balkaria. These operations indicate the continuing trend within Russian security circles to widen the potential scope of operations and also to fuel the conflict within Chechnya on the basis of equating the generic idea of “Islamic militants” with the security problems confronting the Kremlin in Chechnya.
Russian Special Forces surrounded an apartment in Nalchik for a 24-hour period on February 20. According to local reports, Special Forces began storming the apartment at around 7:20 am (local time). Several bursts of automatic gunfire were heard, supplemented by eyewitness accounts of heavy gunfire and confusion as the authorities tried to control the operation. Armed militants had apparently barricaded themselves inside the Nalchik apartment in an attempt to evade detection.
Rumors spread quickly that Special Forces had deployed a non-lethal weapon in the operation, perhaps similar to that used to end the Nord-Ost hostage crisis in October 2002. The Kabardino-Balkaria Interior Ministry promptly issued a denial, stating that the incident at 19-19a Shogentsukova Street had, in fact, entailed the use of smoke bombs, since the forces were painfully aware of the residential nature of the area. Having negotiated for several hours, making efforts to resolve the matter by peaceful means, the decision was taken to storm the building. Local authorities confirmed that after the use of smoke bombs, several rounds of sub-machine gunfire were exchanged with the militants, Special Forces threw grenades, and two militants were killed. There was no clear statement on the numbers involved, reports on wounded, or any indication as to the success of the operation itself. However, by 7:45 am fire engines were on scene extinguishing a blaze in the neighboring flat, suggesting that the operation did not go entirely according to plan. A spokesman for the Kabardino-Balkaria Interior Ministry commented: “Due to the confusion of the gunfight in the flat it is not yet possible to give precise information about the number of fighters involved and how many of them were killed.”
Russian authorities rapidly claimed success and linked the incident with efforts by Islamic militants to mastermind terrorist operations throughout the North Caucasus. Arkady Yedelev, deputy Russian interior minister and head of the regional headquarters in charge of counter-terrorist operations in the North Caucasus, confirmed that five individuals were detained and three killed during what he described as an intelligently organized operation. In line with efforts to blur the public memory of the performance of Russian Special Forces in handling the Beslan siege, Yedelev made sure to talk up the outcome of the latest incident. He also linked the militants to suspected terrorist activities in Stavropol Territory, Rostov Region, and other Russian areas. He also asserted that the Nalchik operation had thwarted more terrorist acts within Russian territory. Yedelev alleged that authorities had recovered “laboratory equipment for producing explosive devices of various types that react to the appearance of a human being and thermal exposure.”
Such operations, however, appear to fit a growing pattern within Chechnya and the North Caucasus. Russian Special Forces and intelligence services connect the conflict to an alleged orchestrated campaign to spread political violence across the region. Thus, Russian Special Forces carried out operations within Chechnya on February 20 aimed at preventing militants from vacating bases within the territory itself. Russian authorities confirmed that two Chechen militants had been killed during these operations in Vedensky District, near the villages of Ersenoy and Elistandzhi, and that an arms cache was located that contained 13 explosive devices allegedly belonging to the militants. Again the interpretation was offered that militants were planning terrorist acts throughout the Russian Federation, and they hoped to cross through Dagestan into neighboring districts.
Attempts to link militant activity in Chechnya with a wider threat across Russian territory, though unspecific in its detail, have become a recurrent theme in official Russian statements relating to such incidents. It may serve as a justification to target related networks rather than militants only. Operations conducted by Russian Special Forces units inside Chechnya and beyond, supported by Russian intelligence and an information campaign in the media, talk loosely of new and emerging terrorist groups that may be subordinated to the Chechen rebel leadership. Moreover, the reporting of these operations also seems under tight control, portraying an image of effective operational management and sound intelligence. Here at least, are the first signs of Russian pre-emptive doctrine in practical terms, used in cloak and dagger style, against an enemy that may be classed as “terrorist,” if only for domestic consumption.
(RTR Russia TV, February 20; Interfax, February 20; Itar-Tass, February 20; RIA-Novosti, February 20).